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Mardi Gras: more than parties and ‘COPS’

By Kimberly Rolland
On February 16, 2012

Besides jambalaya, black magic and the beautiful bayous, New Orleans is also home to the infamous Fat Tuesday, better known as Mardi Gras.

Many people like to celebrate Mardi Gras with various parties and traditions, but few know the true origin of the holiday.

The origins of Mardi Gras can be traced back to 14th century Europe. It was originally a Christian holiday, a combination of traditional and pagan rituals enacted by the early church fathers.

Mardi Gras was introduced to America in 1699 when the French explorer Iberville set up camp near the Mississippi River, very close to the current city of New Orleans. There he enacted what was then called "Point du Mardi Gras" to uphold the traditions of the holiday which had been celebrated in France for years.

Now, let's fast forward to Mardi Gras celebrations in the late 20th century. Usually, we picture big floats, huge masses of crowds and drunken college students flashing each other to get cheap plastic beads; in some cases, these images are true. The locals of New Orleans, however, paint a much more intimate picture of the day, focusing more on upholding traditions set in the 1600s.

For those who took French in high school, Mardi Gras parties often included a less than accurate sample of King Cake, a popular dessert. But down in New Orleans, it's not a proper Mardi Gras without this hand-braided Danish dough.

Baked, glazed and covered in purple, green and gold sprinkles, the recipe wouldn't be complete without a tiny plastic baby hidden inside. Yes, that's right - a plastic baby.

Every King Cake has one of these babies baked into it for feasters to find. Whoever receives the slice of cake with the baby in it is then asked to host next year's Mardi Gras celebration.

Many long hours and months are spent preparing for this sinful celebration. This year alone, there will be over a dozen parade floats featuring prominent characters and celebrities. The floats occupied by influential persons are called "Krewes."

During the early morning and afternoon, Bourbon Street in downtown New Orleans is flooded with spectators of all ages who watch the colorful floats make their way through the streets. Another parade tradition is the throwing of the trinkets, started in 1877 by a group known as the Twelfth Night Revelers.

Every year, crowds rush to the streets to collect doubloons, beads and plastic cups. People shout "Throw me something, mister," when they want one of these trinkets thrown. The official Mardi Gras website warns new visitors not to be the first to place their hands on the sidewalk when the trinkets are thrown. Many locals will stomp on the thrown doubloons to claim for themselves and some aren't afraid of stepping on fingers and toes to get to them.

When the sun falls, many adults head over to the French Quarter. This part of the celebration is not intended for children - in fact, parents are warned against bringing them.

The French Quarter is where the large masses gather to commit the stereotypical lewd behavior that many people associate with New Orleans. The rowdier crowds gather, bingeing on alcohol and flashing for beads. The locals insist that this part of the celebration has nothing to do with the actual tradition.

All in all, the traditions of Fat Tuesday should not be confused with scenes shown on "COPS: Mardi Gras Edition." This cultural holiday gives New Orleans both a way to preserve their colorful history and bring money into an economy still suffering from the effects of Hurricane Katrina.

So grab a mask and some beads, and enjoy Mardi Gras while keeping in mind the origins of this festive holiday.

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